October 21, 2016

The Burqa and the Burkini

AP Photo/Scanpix
In this image taken from video, Nesrine Kenza who says she is happy to be free to wear a burkini, and two unidentified friends rest on the beach in Marseille, France, Monday Aug. 29, 2016.
In this image taken from video, Nesrine Kenza who says she is happy to be free to wear a burkini, and two unidentified friends rest on the beach in Marseille, France, Monday Aug. 29, 2016.

Instead of banning the burkini, the practice of bans should be ridiculed.

When speaking of the burkini, we must start with the burqa—and the principle that a woman’s body must be hidden from public view.
During Islam’s secular period, from the early 20th century to the 1980s, the burqa was a rare sight, like other Islamic garb. The burqa and its like started spreading in the 1960s, after Saudi Arabia appointed a strict Wahhabist regime following a decade of comparative liberalism. However, this Islamic dress began to spread more rapidly in the 1970s, with the sprawl of petro-Islam all over the Muslim world, which brought along an ever-increasing need for the Islamisation of all fields of life. Compared to the 1970s, the Islamic world today has changed beyond recognition.
One sign of Islamisation is the suppression of women to ensure they follow Islam’s propriety norms, which is most clearly visible in clothing—women in Saudi Arabia and its Wahhabi offspring in the states around the Gulf as well as under the Taliban regimeand the “Islamic State” wear either a burqa, which covers the entire body, or a niqāb, which has a slit for the eyes. However, even in the rest of the Islamic world it is now inconceivable that a woman would leave her home without a chador or a hijab covering her hair, as well as modestly covering the rest of her body.1
This problem is best known through the example of France, which is home to Europe’s biggest Muslim community—forming 7.5% of the population, some 4.5 million people (or more, according to some sources)—and undoubtedly the Western state that has failed the most spectacularly with its integration plan. The 1905 French law on the Separation of the Churches and the State says that France is a secular country where every citizen has the freedom of religion. Since 2004, state schools have banned the wearing of headscarves. This ban originates in the secularity clause of the French Constitution. On 11 August 2010 a new law was adopted, which bans face covers in all public spaces. The ban was explained by Nicolas Sarkozy, French president at the time: “In our country, we can’t accept women prisoners behind a screen, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity. That’s not our idea of freedom. It’s not a religious symbol, but a sign of subservience and debasement.”2
The European Court of Human Rights upheld France’s ban in a decision of 2 July 2014, when the case was brought to the court over a complaint that the ban on veils encroached on an individual’s freedom of religion and self-expression.3
People in other parts of Europe have also begun to limit face-covering in public, taking account of the Islamic tradition but often without mentioning Islam directly. In Belgium, it has been forbidden since 2011 to be in a public space with a covered face, and in 2012 the Constitutional Court of Belgium found that this ban did not violate human rights. Various regions of Italy and Spain have imposed different bans, and eight states in Germany ban schoolteachers from wearing the hijab. Bulgaria is likely to follow suit soon, while disputes are continuing in Denmark and Holland. Estonia’s southern neighbour Latvia is trying an original approach, considering the possibility of allowing the niqāb, but only as long as it is decorated with Latvian national symbols!4
The UK—one of the most Islam-friendly Western states—has no firm ban on face coverings and there is an ongoing dispute between political powers on the issue: anyone who has visited London will certainly have seen burqas and the rest of the rich Islamic culture there.
Discussions over the burqa are also present in Estonia. There have been about a dozen articles in favour or against5 the tradition, and many local Muslims support a ban in Estonia,6 while others oppose it;7 while hell-bent defenders of human rights see a ban on the burqa as a major violation of rights.8
Here I would like to point to the conclusions in the only thorough analysis of the burqa undertaken in Estonia, by the University of Tartu senior research fellow Peeter Espak:
A woman with a face cover in a public space in Estonian conditions contradicts our social norms. Neither Estonia nor its near vicinity has at any time had a tradition of hiding a woman’s face or covering it in public spaces or while doing specific tasks in public. Exceptions to that can be a veiled bride at a church wedding, an athlete in a ski mask, a mascot in front of a restaurant inviting people in, etc. But none of these cases contradict our social norms, as long as the corresponding activities are carried out in proper dress that corresponds to our social context. A person wearing a mask because of the cold while working or practising a sport is understandable and corresponds to our norms while that precise activity is performed. However, a masked individual entering a means of public transport or a services company would be interpreted by the persons in the room as a violation of norms and a feasible threat.9 Face covers that people claim to wear for their faith are perceived as norm-violating or dangerous in our society or cultural space.10
Public opinion in Estonia also favours banning the burqa, according to surveys by the Institute of Social Researches in January and August 2016.11

The Burqa’s Sister: the Burkini

The burkini, a swimsuit meant for Muslim women, is directly related to the burqa—evident from its name and its Islamist connotations. It was preceded by the less form-fitting “veilkini” and the pyjama-like MyCozzie brand. But the one that has achieved fame and remarkable sales success is the now carefully trademark-protected burkini. It was designed by an Australian Muslim woman, Aheda Zanetti (born 1967), in 2007–8 and has now achieved over one million sales. And, as typical of Muslims in the West, the clothing’s inherent Islamism is hidden behind terms such as “modesty” that are understood by the local population.12
After many peaceful years of frolicking in the brine, the burkini took centre stage due to the West’s reaction to the Islamic terrorist attack in Nice on 14 July 2016. But even here, the West showed mercy and forgiveness—had a Christian fundamentalist killed a hundred Muslims in Medina or the head of some European state threatened to take over Mecca, the outcry would not have stopped at an argument over clothes. Instead, hundreds of churches would have been burnt and thousands of indigenous Christians living in Islamic territories would have perished. However, something had to give following the Islamist terror, even in the West, and the burkini dispute received more coverage in Corsica on 13 August 2016, when a small group of Muslims, deeming it unseemly that “non-believers” should watch their women swim in full dress, “privatised” part of the public beach, provoking local (Corsican!) outrage and the subsequent clash between the supremacy of Islam and local hot-bloodedness.13
What followed was a partially distorted version of events in the media: the Muslim women were not wearing burkinis while swimming, but full Islamic dress, as per their tradition. The burkini issue in the West started with no burkinis involved. However, this simple domestic argument spread like wildfire in the right-wing media, billed as a burkini invasion, while elsewhere it became a story of yet another case of Muslim persecution. This event coincided with the burkini ban in Cannes, where mayor David Lisnard announced a ban on beach clothes that “overtly manifest adherence to a religion at a time when France and places of worship are under attack”. He was obviously referring to Nice and the attack on a church in Normandy on 26 July 2016, where an 86-year-old priest was decapitated, following the example of the Prophet Muhammad’s attitude towards non-believers.
Corsica and Cannes were the first shots in an assault on the burkini. Next came the French resort of Villeneuve-Loubet, where the mayor announced that the town must decide whether the townspeople wanted to follow “the smiling Sharia Law” or French law on public beaches.14
Next came a surprising attack from the Socialist (!) prime minister, Manuel Valls, who declared on 17 August: “The burkini is not a new type of swimsuit or fashion statement—it is an expression of an anti-social political project”; this was seconded by Laurence Rossignol, the Socialist Minister for Family, Children and Women’s Rights: “The burkini is created to hide women’s bodies in order to control them”.15
From then on, the burkini ban became the favourite subject of the media on an international level, condemned by social liberal circles and praised by right-wing ones. The Guardian describes the burkini ban as an attack on women, whose clothes the state has made a decision to control.16 The New York Times describes the ban as narrow-minded male hypocrisy,17 while a slightly more moderate view is supported by the BBC, which brought hidden Islamism to the West decades ago.18 The New Yorker announces: “The irony of the swimsuit crisis is that the laws—and their enforcement—shamed the Muslim women who want to participate in French society”.19
Not everyone was opposed to the burkini ban—there were numerous arguments for and against,20 and many views that directly supported it. One of the boldest states:
France’s objection to the burkini, and its ugly sister the burka, arises from a love of women, not hatred. It [the burkini] is a symbol of misogynist repression. If it isn’t, then why aren’t Muslim men wearing them, eh? … It [the burkini] ends up intimidating other Muslim women into feeling ashamed for exposing their own flesh, making integration even harder. It’s not what the burkini is, but the poisonous ideology it represents. And please spare me the howls of concern for the rights of women to dress as they please when there is zero anger about the rights of women forced into ugly, repressive garments by a bunch of medieval misogynists. Just look at the wonderful smiles of those women … who cast off their burkas as soon as Isil had departed.21
The burkini ban was implemented in more than a dozen French resort towns in August 2016. And this ban was strongly enforced by the otherwise occasionally listless French police, and the only people on the beaches trying to stop them had immigrant backgrounds.22
However, these local bans were suspended on 26 August by a Council of State decision, which declared that the burkini ban “seriously infringed, in a manner that was clearly illegal, fundamental liberties such as the freedom to come and go, religious freedom and individual freedom”.23 Still, the French are a headstrong people and local municipalities have promised to fight to maintain the ban;24 but sadly nothing has been heard in the media, either due to the end of the beach season or for some other reason.
There is no consensus among Muslims and their sympathisers on the burkini ban. True believers and hidden Islamic agenda promoters have dubbed it yet another form of repression and stigmatisation of Islam.25
The left-wing voices of human rights organisations that have fallen victim to Islamist pimping are even louder in proclaiming the “anti-humanity” of the ban. As we can read in a Human Rights Watch article:
… under the pretext of defending France’s republican principles and women’s rights, the burkini ban actually amounts to banning women from the beach, in the middle of the summer, just because they wish to cover their bodies in public. It’s almost a form of collective punishment against Muslim women for the actions of others. Instead of encouraging all French people to live together peacefully and promoting equality and fundamental freedoms, which is the responsibility of the public authorities, the burkini ban and the revival of the endless controversy on religious symbols linked to Islam merely stigmatize practicing Muslim women, exclude them from public spaces … and deprive them of their rights to autonomy, to leisure activities, to wear what they chose [sic], and of course to practice their faith.26
There are also Muslims who favour the burkini ban. As left-wing secular Muslim Yasmin Alibhai-Brown stated in April 2016—before the burkini crisis—the burkini is another example of the Islamification of fashion in order to legalise extremely conservative clothing, which leaves the way open for female suppression.27
Indeed—the burkini situation is unclear even in the Muslim world. There are repeated reports of the persecution of burkini wearers in states that consider Islamism a threat. Such is the situation in Egypt and Morocco;28,29 not to mention the Muslim states that see Islamism as an existential threat, like parts of Central Asia, where there are no burqas or burkinis.
What can we conclude from all of this? As Islamist terrorism strides across Europe, it is (quietly, for now) followed by the understanding that Islam is inherently incompatible with underlying Western values. It starts with small battles, à la burkini.
It can therefore be said that the attack of the burkini in the great war of Islam versus the West will not be the last; it will persist like the liberal populism that turns a blind eye to it.
This raises the question: should burkinis be banned, and would such a ban actually do any good? Bans often have the opposite effect. The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion and Mein Kampf are tempting first and foremost because they’re forbidden fruit. Ban doubting whether the Holocaust happened and a multitude of doubters will emerge. Ban doubting whether the Earth is round and the Flat Earth Society will instantly gain new members. Ban doubting whether the deportations happened and new approaches will be published that depict merry peasants who played the accordion on the roofs of railway carriages and were eager to go and cultivate new farming land.
I don’t think burkinis should be banned. In the words of Daniel Pipes, one of today’s most well-known Islamophobes: ‘Ban the burqa, allow the burkini’.30 I would add that we should not sanctify banning but instead engage in ridiculing the phenomenon, stating clearly that going swimming in Islamist garb is yet another example of Islamist repression in our society. Humour is a powerful weapon in any totalitarian system, including one that involves Islamist supremacy. Likewise, all media publications sympathising with Charlie Hebdo should have published their caricatures or stayed silent, rather than making money out of a tragedy while quietly tolerating an Islamist agenda.
The only purpose of the burkini is to fit a woman’s body and appearance with the demands of the Sharia. However, Islamic law and the lifestyle based on it are comparable with the criminal ideology and practice of Bolshevism in their anti-humanism. The burkini is but a mere pawn in the great offensive of the supremacy of Islam. True, we cannot ban every detail of Islamism. But I truly long for the day when Islamist crimes are brought together in a single court case in the West and people dare to admit the underlying truth contained in Islamist texts—an ideology that despises non-believers and opposes the rest of the world.
1 On these four types of Islamic dress see: arvamus.postimees.ee/3295759/peeter-espak-nao-katm… 2 See the president’s claims: Nicolas Sarkozy says Islamic veils are not welcome in France – The Guardian, 22 June 2009: www.theguardian.com/world/2009/jun/22/islamic-veil… 3 See: France’s burqa ban upheld by human rights court – The Guardian, 1 July 2014: www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jul/01/france-burqa… 4 islamreview.ru/news/v-latvii-parandzu-razresili-no… 5 Chief ones available here: www.postimees.ee/3286601/eesti-kaalub-burka-kandmi… arvamus.postimees.ee/3295759/peeter-espak-nao-katm… www.ohtuleht.ee/692363/igor-grazin-burka-keelamine… uudised.err.ee/v/eesti/ba1f2a8f-3002-4765-bab3-b3c… epl.delfi.ee/news/arvamus/burka-kandmine-on-inimoi… 6 www.pealinn.ee/newset/eesti-rahvaste-uhendus-burka… 7 uudised.err.ee/v/eesti/696973be-6151-4a60-8b82-112… 8 arvamus.postimees.ee/3415083/kari-kasper-naokattei… 9 A woman with a veiled face in our public space also caused confusion in a 2016 experiment by the news portal Delfi, which serves as proof that in the case of not following our social norms, the woman in a niqāb may be the one in danger: www.delfi.ee/news/paevauudised/eesti/delfi-eksperi… 10 Peeter Espak, Analysis on the Ban on Face Covers, an analysis for the Ministry of Justice, May 2016; as far as I know, it remains unpublished.
11 In January 2016, answers by 1,000 Estonian citizens to the question “Do you support the ban on face covers (so-called burqa ban)?” were as follows: yes 48.9%; rather yes: 22%; rather no: 12.9%; no: 10.9%; not sure: 5.2%. In August 2016 the answers to the same question were: yes 44%, rather yes 28%, rather no 13%, no 7%, not sure: 7%. Source: information forwarded to me in August 2016 by the Institute of Social Researches.
12 See introductory text on official home page: www.burqini.com/ 13 www.clarionproject.org/analysis/burkini-battle-wha… 14 www.lemonde.fr/societe/article/2016/08/13/apres-ca… 15 www.laprovence.com/article/politique/4078328/valls… 16 www.theguardian.com/world/2016/aug/24/the-burkini-… www.theguardian.com/world/2016/aug/24/french-polic… 17 www.nytimes.com/2016/08/18/world/europe/fighting-f… 18 www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/french-mayor-cannes-b… 19 www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/a-court-overturns… 20 www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/burkini-ba… ; www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3762687/Burkini-B… 21 www.telegraph.co.uk/women/life/burkinis-heres-why-… 22 www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/burkini-ban-social-e… 23 www.reuters.com/article/us-religion-burqa-france-i… 24 edition.cnn.com/2016/08/29/europe/french-mayors-re… 25 www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/08/france-warns-muslim… 26 www.hrw.org/news/2016/08/25/frances-shameful-and-a… 27 www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-3519932/Bin-bur… 28 www.smh.com.au/world/burkini-debate-spreads-to-egy… 29 For instance: www.insidetheworld.org/2016/08/15/the-burkini-bann… 30 www.danielpipes.org/16873/ban-the-burqa-allow-the-…


Hille Hanso, freelance journalist, Istanbul
It would be constructive to divide big, challenging topics—in this case the phantom “offensive of the supremacy of Islam”—into small, specific subjects so that we could, if necessary, start searching for rational solutions. What do we consider an offensive? There is no clearly defined Muslim community as such in the world—otherwise the ideal of creating a new caliphate would have become a reality long ago.
I think it would be rational to view Muslim behaviour and customs in the context of particular groups and social phenomena. Interested parties often compare “our” completely “free” society to Wahhabi sects or other extremists that are a narrow section of the otherwise diverse Islamic world. We do not need to discuss whether extremism is compatible with a normally functioning society. Of course it is not. Another weakness of this argument is that Muslims who choose the tolerant and peaceful part of Islamic teachings are also declared incompatible with “us” in one fell swoop.
It would be better to compare things that are comparable. In the context of women’s clothing, for example, we can comparatively analyse the topics of violence against women, political representation, health, the economic situation and rights in an average Islamic country and Estonia. We see that our results are not as exemplary as we think. If we include another country, such as some Christian developing country in South America or Africa, in the comparison, the results would most likely show that it is arbitrary to place the blame for all women’s troubles solely on Islam. If we include a progressive Nordic country in the analysis, however, we would look bad ourselves. A woman is free to be half-naked but does this mean she has equal rights? Why is a woman’s body the battlefield of liberals and conservatives time and time again?
Peterson’s statement that “[t]he only purpose of the burkini is to fit a woman’s body and appearance with the demands of the Sharia” is an opinion that should be discussed before it is published as a fundamental truth. Naturally, as my Muslim colleagues love to point out, the fact that there are 1.6 billion Muslims means that there are as many opinions—we will not find the conclusive truth in a discussion. What we need is reliable research, which cannot be organised in the Estonian context since the required research subjects do not exist here. As Üllar Peterson has built his article mainly on opinions rather than scientific research, it would be fair to publish the viewpoints of other people connected to the subject.

Emine, who is a devout Muslim but does not think that the Sharia should prevail over civil law, says “It should be taken into consideration that deeply conservative Muslims or extremists would never go and swim in the midst of uncovered women and men in a public place. They believe it is haram (sin), which is why you won’t see them at the beach. Women who wear burkinis at the beach usually dress modestly but wish to participate in all fields of social life. Also, extremists think that burkinis are too tight.”
Anika, a Briton born in Pakistan whose mother wears a burkini at the beach, comments “Non-Muslims often say that if women are allowed to cover themselves or wear burkinis, it undermines the objectives of integration and promotes ISIS. However, banning the burkini creates a different effect. I have witnessed curious protests, for example, men dressed in burkinis to support women. Well-off Muslims help those who are poorer to pay fines issued for covering themselves. In general, it generates anger since Muslims feel that they cannot do anything or join the discussion, and many feel that it is another step towards banning Islam. Young people are especially cross and are therefore easy prey to extremist recruiters.”

Nurul, an Indonesian engineer who works for the UN, agrees: “Wearing a hijab does not make me less active in a society where the majority follows another faith. I also swim in a burkini. It is no different from a calypso that I used to wear before. If it is banned at some location, I won’t go there on vacation. I find that everyone should be able to wear what they want to if they do not harm anyone else with it.”
The study Behind the Veil: Why 122 women choose to wear the full face veil in Britain * conducted in the UK revealed several interesting aspects: women usually make the decision to wear a niqab independently and are influenced by Western individualism in this, i.e. they think that everyone can wear what they wish if it is a part of their identity. It is a mistake to label all of these women Islamists, extremists or victims of the Sharia. We also discover a fascinating controversy: do we only believe in individual freedom as long as it has been packaged in a container we accept?
* Open Society Foundations, 2014. Available at www.opensocietyfoundations.org/reports/behind-veil

Kadri Jõgi, orientalist
Early Muslim women were acknowledged members of society; it is known that women held cultural salons during the Umayyad Caliphate. The contribution of women is also illustrated by the Prophet’s wife Khadijah, who was a respected businesswoman. In the 8th century, early in the Islamic era, the customs for covering one’s face were different from today’s wearing of a burka. At first, only the wives of the Prophet wore burkas that covered them from head to toe since they, because of their position, were expected to hide their body, while the general female population was not required to do so.
Customs have changed during the history of Islam and the burkini is a manifestation of this. In one sense, its novelty can be compared to the change that occurred when the Western-style swimsuit (a common sight today) reached Europe. At the same time, it is interesting that this new garment—the burkini—has created antipathy in liberal-minded Europe and even given rise to changes in legislation in some countries.

I Say “Burkini”, But I Mean “Woman”

Marianne Mikko, Chairperson of the Estonian delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe
I must admit that I followed the great war of words over the burkini for a month and a half with great amazement. The demonisation of a full-body women’s swimsuit that started on the beaches of France and a quick burkini ban by local authorities first drew reactions of “no way!” and “well, I’ll be”, but common sense prevailed in the end.
In its essence, the burkini issue was not so much a case of Islam’s encroachment on Europe but rather something summarised by Pierre Bourdieu simply as “male domination” over women. The ruling gender decided to say what a woman in France could or could not wear at the beach in a way that is patronising and intolerant of objections.
I agree: what happened in Nice on 14 July was a tragedy—a trauma that left a bleeding wound in the hearts of France and the rest of Europe. The same can be said about the Bataclan terrorist attacks in Paris on 13 November 2015. Terrorists and radical Islamists must be severely punished.
7.5% of the French population is Muslim. Half of those are women, half men. The majority of inmates in French prisons are male, and 50–70% of those are Muslim. If there really is some blame attached to French officials, then it boils down to the fact that they were unable to control the proliferation of radicalisation in prisons. This is where serious control is needed, not on the beaches where IDs are harshly demanded from burkini wearers.
Fortunately, France saw the light of fundamental rights and freedoms. The Council of State passed a judgment on 26 August 2016 that the burkini ban was illegal. Muslim women are free to wear any swimsuit they wish. The ideals of the French Enlightenment triumphed over blind hatred and fear.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.